Peters, Brooks. “The Sexual Revolution Mailman Delivered.” Out, 1994.
Bruce Mailman was born in Chester, Pennsylvania, a “poor industrial town outside Philadelphia” (Peters, 140).
Mailman’s parents were merchants.
When he was four years old, Bruce Mailman experienced his “first sexual experience.” A man had walked into his father’s shop wearing a “suede jacket without a shit on underneath.” Though Mailman “knew it wasn’t right, [he] didn’t know why.” However, he remembers wanting the man to “take off the jacket. [He] was consciously interested” (qtd. in Peters, 140).
Growing up, Mailman became aware of the “town queer,” Snookie, but knew he didn’t want to be like Snookie (qtd. in Peters, 140).
Alone in high school, with no gay friends, Mailman worked through his self-identity on his own. He became involved in art, theater, and music in high school, and went on to attend Temple University and the Tyler School of Fine Art in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. At the Tyler School, Mailman met other gay men, but still “had to hide” who he truly was. He pronounces that being gay was “mysterious, like being part of a private society. […] There was no openness.” Yet to Mailman, being gay was “as dangerous as it was interesting” (qtd. in Peters, 140).
After Bruce Mailman moved to New York to attend graduate school at New York University, he graduated with a master’s degree in the early 1960s. Mailman began working as a caseworker after graduation, and soon met his long time partner, John, a cardiologist. Together, John and Mailman began to invest in real estate, whilst Mailman began producing his own creative works and plays.
Mailman’s first production of a play took place in 1970.
The play was entitled The Dirtiest Show in Town, and was written by Tom Eyen. Starring a cast that was mostly naked for the entire production, the play nevertheless required costumes, which Mailman designed. Mailman also designed the set of The Dirtiest Show in Town.
The first production enjoyed over 500 performances, attracting a memorable review from critic Clive Barnes who stated that another controversially nude play of the time Oh! Calcutta! was practically “Little Women” in comparison (Peters, 140).
Bruce Mailman soon opened the Fortune Theatre with collaborator Andy Warhol, which Mailman claims to be the first place in New York City to showcase gay porn “commercially” (Peters, 140). Mailman also co-wrote a textbook, and became the manager of another theater. After Mailman created his infamous bathhouse, he became invested in the gay disco scene and excelled in similar fashion there with his creation of the Saint disco club of New York City.
a trip in the saint
In the article, Michael Fierman, an esteemed DJ of the Saint, explains that DJs had a responsibility to “make a musical statement.” At the Saint, evenings were given structure because of the DJ’s desire to “take the crowd someplace” (qtd. in Peters, 140). Fierman describes the Saint as a “decadent place” in a “non-negative way” (qtd. in Peters, 141). Yet of all the liberation the Saint appeared to have stirred in its gay members who reveled in the club’s hot parties, not everyone was welcome.
John Preston recounts that at the Saint there was “a sense of exclusion of those [individuals] who weren’t pretty enough” (qtd. in Peters, 141). Author Brooks Peters states that black people “complained” that they were discriminated against at the Saint, given that they did not fit the culturally-imposed ideal gay male figure. Peters continues on to say that “Drag queens were definitely not welcome” and that “lesbians were not included.”
Others steered clear of the Saint by their own volition. The sexual nature of the Saint was off-putting to them. Critics of the Saint believed that promiscuous and anonymous sex should not be equated with gay liberation, however, others feel that their physical excursions in disco clubs like the Saint were freeing and necessary. The sexual liberation of the Saint was rooted in Mailman’s precursor business, the St. Marks Baths, whose origination inspired a generation to be “honest,” according to Mailman (qtd. in Peters).
a sexual revolution
Andrew Holleran, a prominent novelist, describes Bruce Mailman in the following way:
“‘The thing about Bruce Mailman is that he is the eminence grise, the Cardinal Richelieu behind the scenes in the gay world. He culminated and codified and realized physically the climax of the 70s. He provided the settings, literally the theater, for all of these fantasies'” (qtd. in Peters, 80).
Given that he rarely grants interviews, Bruce Mailman’s reputation generally proceeds his name in any conversation, however in this article published in the July/August 1994 issue of Out magazine, author Brooks Peter hoped he would finally “set the record straight” (Peters, 80).
Following the 1969 Stonewall riot, “more and more gay men and lesbians were organizing support groups and demanding equal rights. And businesses-bars and bathhouses in particular- began to cater openly” to the gay community (Peters, 80). At the time there were several bathhouses that Mailman remembers vividly offering a range of experiences such as steam baths, massages, and rooms where one could get hit with “birch branches” (Peters, 80). The Russian Baths, the Penn Post baths, and the Continental Baths are all famous bathhouses that Mailman remembers from his youth.
However, Bruce Mailman presents some criticisms of the gay bathhouses and community fixtures of the his time. To Mailman, the “whole gay scene was unattractive [and] freaky.” People did not seek familiarity from one another, nor did they want to even meet people. Mailman noticed that at gay bars, “people wouldn’t sign their own names. They were very embarrassed to see someone they knew on the street.” Mailman’s hope was to create a community in which people could be open and “honest” with each other and with themselves (qtd. in Peters).
Mailman also argues that “camp” gay men were “buying into the typical, straight-imposed ‘nellie’ stereotypes” that were self-deprecating and demeaning. He recalls being “outraged” when a young man called him “hon.” Mailman felt that campness demeaned the gay community, and sought to create spaces that manifested masculinity.
Mailman eventually charmed his way into ownership of the existing St. Marks Baths by convincing his backers that they were investing in a “viable proposition” (qtd. in Peters). When he remodeled the St. Marks Baths, Bruce Mailman invited a younger generation of gay men to his establishment, and they lost themselves to the liberation of New York’s sexual revolution. The bathhouse had five floors, a video room, and a luncheonette. It was magnificent.
Larry Kramer, a prominent activist, playwright, and author acknowledges that Mailman “succeeded” in giving the gay community the “nicest baths” (qtd. in Peters).
Attracting millions of dollars each year, the St. Marks Baths became synonymous with gay and queer culture.
One visitor states that “if you didn’t like the baths, you had to examine yourself. Maybe you had a serious case of self-loathing, or maybe you hadn’t gotten the message. It was part of the culture to have a lot of anonymous sex.” Attending the Baths affirmed one’s identity and increased the fraternity and camaraderie among the young men who were there (qtd. in Peters). The baths were a “sexual” gathering where men could meet celebrities, plumbers, even nuclear physicists. Anyone and everyone seemed to belong (qtd. in Peters).
the disease, his controversy
The St. Marks Baths were “always spotless” (Peters, 82).
Inspections were conducted every 15 minutes in the bathhouse to ensure everyone’s safety and to guarantee that there was no injury. Sadly, a member drowned in a hot tub at the St. Marks Baths, however, this is the only time that things went “wrong” (Peters, 82).
Staff members of the Baths were fired “on the spot” if they were caught having sexual relations with guests or members of the Baths, though such relations continued on anyways.
To Mailman’s staff, Bruce was “not easy to work for” because he “had more respect for the clientele than he did for his employees” (qtd. in Peters, 82). Yet Mailman does not see himself as “tough or ruthless;” he is “goal-oriented.” Mailman cares about how he presents his work and simply wants things “done the way [he] want[s] it done” (qtd. in Peters, 82).
However, soon the St. Marks Baths (and later on, the Saint) became known as the “epicenter” of a deadly disease: AIDS (Peters, 82).
merciless or innocent?
Bruce Mailman was accused of being an exploitative, “merciless profiteer” when he “resisted shutting down the baths early in the AIDS crisis” (Peters, 82). Many people, including Larry Kramer and other vocal writers and leaders in the gay community believed that Mailman took too long to close the Saint in the wake of the mounting evidence that AIDS was a sexually transmitted disease. Larry Kramer advised young gay people to avoid sex clubs and reduce their number of sexual partners, even to try abstinence. Yet Mailman did not want to “give up the freedom he had fought for so many years to establish” (Peters).
To Mailman, the Baths was a “hard-won symbol of fraternity, equality, and liberty.” Author Brooks Peters explains that the “right to be a homosexual man without harrassment from society was closely linked to the right to have promiscuous sex.”
Civil rights was on Mailman’s mind when he failed to close the Baths as early as critics wanted him to. Anyway, Mailman believes that more would have been done to “control the epidemic” during the virus’s germination period in 1980, but no one knew of the public health crisis to come back then (qtd. in Peters, 82). To Mailman, the accusations against him promote an argument based on hindsight bias.
Tom Steele wrote that AIDS was like a “shark attack” (qtd. in Peters, 82). For a while, New York experienced a “dreadfully grim” period of despair in which a “sexual shutdown” created a sort of emotional “black hole” (qtd. in Peters, 82).
Two conservative commentators at the time, Pat Buchanan and William F. Buckley, began to advocate for “quarantine camps,” and “tattooing,” in response to the AIDS crisis, procedures reminiscent of the protocols of Nazi concentration camps. By condemning him and “not supporting the baths,” Mailman believes the gay community was “really feeding into the hands of the right wing” (qtd. in Peters, 82).
Bruce Mailman insists that in 1983 the Baths were doing more good than harm in the gay community. His bathhouse offered counseling and distributed condoms in packages that read: “The contents of this envelope can save your life” (qtd. in Peters, 82). Yet, he continued to be villainized.
To Mailman, it is clear that the media hoped to villainize a distinguished gay business-owner in New York City in order to “appease people’s hysteria.”
In 1985, Mailman was forced to close the St. Marks Baths due to increased political and legal pressure.
Mailman states that he spent $300,000 U.S. dollars defending his right to keep the St. Marks Baths open. He lost.
Some writers in the gay community did defend Mailman’s desire to keep the St. Marks Baths open. Bruce Mailman never “sat there with a shotgun and forced people to have sex” says Marc Berkeley, a club promoter in New York who later worked at the Saint during its closing years (qtd. in Peters, 82).
Marisa Cardinale, the executive director of Community Research Initiative on AIDS (CRIA) in 1994, believes the following:
“Our right to privacy and our right to gather are two of the most important things, as gay people, we have. And I don’t think anything, [not] even AIDS, is worse than voluntarily giving up those rights” (qtd. in Peters, 82).
Things got worse.
The Saint disco lost club members, employees, and DJs to AIDS. The club eventually closed, a mere reflection of its former glory.
In 1991, drug and tax evasion charges were brought against Mailman.
An unjust investigation led by federal prosecutor James J. McGuire. McGuire and a team of IRS agents attempted to unravel the drug scene at Fire Island by targeting Bruce Mailman. Mailman eventually pleaded guilt to the charges of tax evasion, but he “vigorously” denied the raised drug charges (qtd. in Peters, 143).
No one in the gay community defended Mailman during his legal troubles, a fact that severely disappointed Mailman. The community’s easy abandonment of him hurt.
In 1992, Mailman’s case was thrown out of the court of law.
The Justice Department determined that fabricated evidence and homophobic motivations had significantly corrupted the investigation against Bruce Mailman. All charges against him were dropped, including those he pleaded guilty to.
Sadly, Mailman describes the entire experience as “being struck by a car” (qtd.in Peters, 143). What began with the closing of the St. Marks Baths swiftly “escalated” (qtd. in Peters, 143).
He experienced a lot of grief.
ghosts of the saint mystique
in 1994, Bruce Mailman decided to start cleaning out, stating that he was “slowly getting rid of most of what [he] owned” (qtd. in Peters, 143). He was in the middle of “downsizing his operations,” and was already selling his house in the Pines.
Author Brooks Peters believes that Mailman’s decluttering is a physical embodiment of Mailman’s “disenchantment with New York’s gay scene.”
Andrew Holleran, the novelist, had recently visited Fire Island at the time of this article’s writing; once there, Holleran states that he “felt like a ghost.” He believes that Mailman is in a transition, just as he is. Holleran proclaims the following:
“You have to start seeing yourself in a different way. It’s like molting and growing a new skin. One’s ship is changing course, reorienting and using a different compass” (qtd. in Peters, 143).
Bruce Mailman knows that his generation was dramatically affected by the onslaught of AIDS.
To Mailman, being gay “today is to walk around with a burden which certainly wasn’t the case in the 70s” (qtd. in Peters, 143). Mailman hopes that future gay generations will find the “same freedom [his generation] once had.”
Another mournful result of AIDS is the disconnect which resulted from it. Mailman feels that his generation did not get to share its “collective wisdom” with the next generation of queer youth because of the disease. He feels that “There is no continuity in the gay population.” The sense that the “young [gay population] arrived newly born and can’t benefit from anything that went before them” is upsetting to Mailman (qtd. in Peters, 143).
By 1994, Mailman owned the restaurant 103, was a silent partner in HX, a gay guide to sex clubs, discos, and bars in New York City, as well as the owner of several other real estate and theater investments.
Of course, Mailman still was involved in hosting for the Saint-at-Large, which for those old enough to remember the original parties at the old Saint, were only “shadows” of what they used to be. However, the Saint-at-Large parties remained a spectacle of “go-go dancers [and] horny bubble-butt boy-toys.” The “young, affluent men” who were allured by the Saint-at-Large in the 1990s were described as the “gay-geoisie” (Peters, 142).
discussion of Brooks Peters’ Article
Author Brooks Peters goes on to describe the lasting influence of the Saint in the nation’s queer community in the 1990s even after the club’s closing. Bruce Mailman’s presentation of erotic, masculine images in his establishment’s marketing during the 70s and 80s guided the creation of posters, ads, and book covers in the 1990s as they pay homage to the “scintillating spectacles and libertine sprawl of the Saint” (Peters, 141).
Party Promoter Dallas Boesendahl declares the following:
“Bruce was the king of New York night life. There is a mystique around the Saint that still exists today. It was a truly brilliant entertainment complex. A wonderful playground for gay men.”
This source does well to expand upon the argument mentioned at the end of Carol Cooper’s article, Disco Knights: Hidden Heroes of the New York Dance Underground. If one has not experienced a disco like the Saint for oneself, then the true impact and emotion of the club can never be felt. In other words, you had to be there.
The Saint-at-Large’s revival of the Saint’s parties seem like mere “shadows” of their original forms to the older men who remember the original Saint in its heyday. Their perception of shadowed, or weakened versions of the experience spun by the Saint through the Saint-at-Large’s party revivals, further emphasize the permanent loss of their youth’s pure euphoric freedom. Their memories can never be replicated.
This source also helpfully provides details about Mailman’s childhood, which I was unaware of beforehand.
Peters’ article addresses the history of the St. Marks Baths with extreme clarity, and provides needed information about his legal troubles, investments, and emotional response to the highs and lows of his life.
Peters’ portrayal of Bruce Mailman is also well-rounded. There were statements of Mailman’s that I disagreed with, yet by the end of the article I do not dislike him. I simply feel like I understand him more.
Some of the drawbacks to the source are its frayed edges. This is a physical copy of the 1994 article that appears to have been torn out of the magazine itself. Some words are missing from the text because of the uneven ripping, however, I do not believe those missing words significantly alter the narrative.
The source also quotes other opinions often, which helps to provide further context and thoughts on the particular subject being dressed.